As Russia’s war on Ukraine approaches its first anniversary, two conclusions are apparent.
First, the war has a long way to run. Its ultimate outcome remains in the balance. Russia’s military objective is unchanged. It is to extinguish Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence, annex territory, install a client regime in Kyiv, and establish a veto over Ukraine’s decision-making. It seeks to create a replica of Belarus, a neutered and dependent nation on its southern flank, with no prospect of joining NATO or falling into the West’s orbit.
Ukraine’s objective is national survival: to expel Russian forces from its territory, including Crimea and the Donbas, and ensure its ability to determine its own form of government and chart its own course as an independent nation.
These two objectives are irreconcilable, meaning a negotiated settlement is not in prospect. The outcome of the war will determine the political outcome.
Second, the stakes have never been higher.
For both Ukraine and Russia, the war is now existential in nature. Defeat for Ukraine would mean its extinguishment as an independent nation. Defeat for Russia would mean the end of Vladimir Putin’s rule and the overthrow of Moscow’s ruling class.
But the war’s outcome will also determine the trajectory of the global political order.
If Ukraine prevails, the foundational principles that underpin the modern world, including the sovereign equality and political independence of nation states, and the prohibition on acquiring territory through aggression, will have been preserved.
If Russia prevails, we will revert to a Hobbesian world order where “might makes right”, where larger nations bend smaller ones to their will, and where the use of armed force and even the threat of nuclear weapons become normalised as tools of statecraft. For Australia, such a scenario would be dire.
Despite early setbacks in its strategy, the war is now settling into a pattern familiar and favourable to Moscow. It is becoming a drawn-out conflict of attrition in which Russia can bring its superior resources to bear, including more soldiers and weaponry, and which drains Ukraine of its resources and weakens the resolve of its Western backers.
Russia’s mobilisation of 300,000 additional soldiers is having an impact on the battlefield. Further mobilisations may follow. Though achieved at great expense, Russia has seized the town of Soledad and is pressing on to Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine. All the signs are that Russia is preparing for a renewed offensive in the northern hemisphere spring.
With the stakes so high, and the war in the balance, further Western support to Ukraine is critical. This is why Western allies, including a very reluctant Germany, have agreed to send battle tanks to Ukraine.
The United States is sending 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Germany will send its own Leopard 2 tanks, and has agreed to allow other nations to re-export the Leopard 2 to Ukraine, including Canada and Poland. The United Kingdom is sending 12 of its Challenger 2 tanks. France, Portugal, Spain, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark will all follow suit.
All up, Western nations have committed some 105 tanks to Ukraine.
While it will take time to deploy the tanks and for Ukraine to train crews and integrate the tanks into battle plans, these new tanks will be a step-change for Ukraine’s capability, marking a big improvement on their aged fleet of Soviet-era and other tanks, which are increasingly running short of parts and ammunition. They will improve Ukrainian firepower and manoeuvrability and strengthen their ability to withstand Russian assaults.
Australia should be joining this effort and sending a contribution of our own tanks to Ukraine.
Australia has the tanks to spare. The current fleet of 59 M1A1 Abrams tanks, none of which are presently deployed, is due to be replaced with a new variant (the M1A2) beginning from 2024.
A contribution of 12 Australian M1 Abrams tanks would make a material difference to Ukraine’s fighting ability. Ukrainians are already preparing to receive the US contribution of 31 M1 Abrams tanks, so a further Australian contribution would be readily integrated.
Australia’s support to Ukraine to date, including the provision of Bushmasters and a slow-to-start ADF training mission, has been respectable. But the war is entering a new phase, and our support needs to keep pace with developments on the ground. It cannot be “set and forget”.
When Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in July, he promised that Australia would “stand side-by-side with the Ukrainian people in their time of need”.
That time of need is now. Supporting Ukraine to resist Russia’s aggression is not only the right thing to do. It is also firmly in Australia’s national interest.
Australia talks a big game about protecting the rules-based global order. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most naked and aggressive challenge to this order. If we are serious about rolling back this threat, then the most material impact we can have is to ensure Ukraine’s soldiers – who are bearing the human cost of this war – are provided with the tanks and other weaponry they need to prevail.